Bruce Springsteen, Oldchella, And The Year Of Rock Star Mortality

10.06.16 3 weeks ago • 3 Comments

Frank Stefanko/Danny Clinch Courtesy of Shore Fire Media

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when Desert Trip — a classic-rock festival taking place over the next two weekends in Indio, California, on the grounds where Coachella is held — became unofficially known as “Oldchella.” But the snarky sobriquet is so perfect that festival organizers should be kicking themselves over any missed licensing opportunities. Oldchella is just so much catchier as a moniker than the comparably generic Desert Trip, which features some of the most storied acts in rock history: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and Roger Waters.

“Oldchella” also is the quintessential emblem for our mixed emotions about the senior class of rock icons. Many are inclined to reflexively roll their eyes whenever the specter of boomer-era cultural exceptionalism looms. Gen-Xers weaned on indie-rock irreverence and suffocating Woodstock retrospectives are particularly susceptible to knee-jerk “pipe down, old rock dudes” hostility. “These people have had their day — why can’t they just leave the stage?” goes the old refrain.

This year, however, entrenched generational provincialism has been leavened a bit by the frequency of “old rock dudes” exiting the stage permanently. Even those who resent classic-rock’s stubborn refusal to fade away were moved by the deaths of David Bowie and Prince. This is where “pipe down, old rock dudes” turns into tearful tweets about losing “the soundtrack of my life.”

If you cared to pay attention, you could watch the decaying of classic rock in real time in 2016. Old bands were either in the midst of retirement tours, like Black Sabbath, or, stranger, in the process of melting together, like the Axl Rose-fronted AC/DC or the gross “supergroup” Hollywood Vampires — composed of Alice Cooper, Aerosmith’s ailing guitarist Joe Perry, and Johnny Depp — which performed a tribute to Motorhead’s late frontman Lemmy Kilmister at the Grammys in February.

This decomposition will only accelerate in the years ahead. As cultural figures, classic rockers are no longer the polarizing outlaw shamans of the ’60s and ’70s, or the yuppie capitalists of the ’80s and ’90s. Now, they’re more akin to aging, poignantly frail parents who might not be around much longer.

“You won’t get a chance to see a bill like this, perhaps ever again,” Elliot Roberts, Neil Young’s longtime manager and associate to many living and deceased classic-rockers, declared of Desert Trip when it was announced in April. For once, the ’60s-worshipping hyperbole doesn’t seem like just hype.

Perhaps the most conspicuous name not on the Desert Trip bill is Bruce Springsteen, who in fact might be a little too young to be playing with the giants of ’60s rock. (At 67, he’s five years younger than the average age of Desert Trip’s headliners.) Springsteen was part of the first generation of post-Woodstock rock stars, a “new Dylan” whose inner musical core was formed in part by the early Beatles, the early Stones, and Highway 61 Revisited. In that sense, Springsteen remains a fan, rather than a peer, of those giants. He’s been contending with their overbearing shadow longer than most.

Springsteen has also been more present in 2016 than his fellow Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famers. For much of the year, Springsteen toured the world playing his 1980 double-album, The River, front to back, followed by another leg of concerts with a looser structure that set personal endurance records for stretching past the four-hour mark.

After concluding the year’s top-grossing tour, Springsteen released Born To Run, an acclaimed 500-page memoir in which he writes movingly about his past and, more important, makes a convincing case for his contemporary vitality, which feels incongruous with the overt nostalgia of Desert Trip.

The River tour and Born To Run are both undeniably concerned with legacy-setting, but they also addressed 2016’s unexpectedly melancholy moment of rock-star vulnerability. At the start of The River tour, the primary concern among fans (and, perhaps, Springsteen himself) was the uncommon rigidity of the concerts. At 20 songs, The River would take up the majority of the set list each night. But then real-life circumstances presented a wild card — Bowie died before the tour’s opening night in Pittsburgh, which prompted an on-stage tribute. Then, before the tour’s next show in Chicago, Glenn Frey of the Eagles died, prompting another tribute. Like that, The River tour became the “mourning” tour.

The first leg of The River tour reached its pinnacle with two concerts at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in April. Each night, Springsteen took a moment to lead a mass sing-along of “Purple Rain” in honor of Prince. Springsteen and Prince had been sparring partners back in the summer of 1984, when Born in the U.S.A. and Purple Rain battled at the top of the album charts for cultural supremacy. While their careers diverged after that, Springsteen understood that for millions of people, his music and Prince’s music will forever be linked in their memories, and that this connection should be heralded.

Perhaps Springsteen also sensed an essential truth about the nature of “performative grief” — when a famous person dies, what’s mourned by the public isn’t just the person, but also our own mortality. It’s about processing the impermanence of what you love, as well as your own impermanence. It reminds us that everything will eventually be nothing, even something that’s seemingly been there forever.

This is important to contemplate from time to time. The most profound part of being alive is the awareness that life is finite. Honestly, it’s amazing that we manage to talk about anything other than that in the course of the day.

As the first leg of The River tour winded through the Midwest last winter, I saw three shows, in spite of the predictable setlist, because how many Springsteen shows does one have left? At each show, Springsteen underlined the tour’s central theme. “I was sitting with a friend of mine last night and he said, ‘Time comes to us all,’ ” Springsteen said in Chicago after performing The River’s closing song, “Wreck on the Highway,” though he said something similar in every town. “The River was about the ticking of that time, and how we each have a finite amount of it — to do our jobs, to raise our family, to do something good.”

When he was a young man, the dried-out riverbed from The River‘s title track suited Springsteen as a metaphor for adult disappointment. Dryness equals impotence, lack of motion, a failure to get to that place where you really wanna go and can walk in the sun, to quote “Born to Run.” In 1980, Springsteen wasn’t far off from the freewheeling drifter at the center of The River‘s best-known track, “Hungry Heart.” The guy in that song likens himself to “a river that don’t know where it’s goin’ ” — there’s freedom in that life, but constant displacement was also starting to lose its appeal for Springsteen, who spent much of the ’80s searching for a partner with whom he could set down roots.

As a much older man in 2016, Springsteen revisited The River after having had a few wives and three children. The family life that he previously only imagined had become real, but it was now largely in his rearview. If Bruce still equated himself to a river, he had traveled far enough to see the ocean that eventually swallows all tributaries.

In the past decade, the concert stage has been the place where Springsteen made his most aggressive stand against time. It started with his body — Springsteen has fortified himself against old age by bulking up his arms and chest and slimming down his waist and legs. In his 20s and 30s, Springsteen was skinny, even scrawny. In his 50s and 60s, he had Popeye’s physique, swapping out Keith Richards for Jim Fixx as the new aging rock-star ideal.

In recent years, Springsteen has toured as much as ever, and pushed harder than ever. I remember seeing Bruce on St. Patrick’s Day in 2008 – Danny Federici was MIA, sick with cancer and not long for this life. (He died the following month.) Clarence Clemons sat off to the side of the stage whenever he wasn’t blowing his sax – his knees and hips had been replaced, and he couldn’t stand except when Bruce called for “Badlands” or “Jungleland.” (Clemons died in 2011.)

As for Bruce himself, he was still built like a Cadillac, and he revved his impeccably maintained engine for more than three hours. Restlessly prowling the stage, then the entire arena, Springsteen strutted amongst his audience with an emperor’s swagger. When Springsteen ran out of arena floor, he let the audience raise him up and crowd-surf him back to the stage. I lost my breath just watching him, but Springsteen never missed a lyric.

“People don’t come to rock shows to learn something. They come to be reminded of something they already know and feel deep down in their gut,” Springsteen writes in his book, Born to Run. “That when the world is at its best, when we are at our best, when life feels fullest, one and one equals three.”

This was the promise of a Springsteen live show in 2016: Bruce would make himself an illogical product of a familiar equation. He would never fold, never break, never not be there for an audience that had watched other trusted heroes fall. Instead, he’d be there to mourn with them, and then help them dance the blues away.

If Springsteen’s concerts have become an exercise in transcending mortality, Born to Run offers the sober counterpoint about how, after the final encore, real life waits where you left it, even when you’re the Boss.

Born to Run covers a lot of ground: It chronicles Springsteen’s rise to fame, dispenses historical trivia about New Jersey’s rock club culture in the ’60s and early ’70s, dishes a little dirt on the E Street Band, pulls back the veil to reveal aspects of his private life (especially his battles with mental illness), and functions as a kind of coping manual for new fathers and long-time disappointed sons. (Honestly, I wish this book existed before my first child was born.) But the primary subject of Born to Run is the passage of time, and how it turns the young into the old, the child into the parent, and the innocent into the weary.

Utilizing a funny, rollicking, ALL CAPS jocularity for much of the book, Springsteen turns somber in the closing chapters of Born to Run. Springsteen admits that his most recent decade has been among the toughest of his life. “Musically, just when I thought I was in the part of my life where I’m supposed to be cruising, my sixties were a rough, rough ride,” he writes. These sections of the book marked by pervasive death. Family, friends, bandmates, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina — he grieves all losses, and carries that grief as a heavy but necessary burden.

While pharmacology contributed to Springsteen’s mental health in his later years, playing live remains his most effective treatment. During a recent low point, Springsteen writes, he desperately reached out to manager Jon Landau to set up a tour as a tonic for chronic depression. “I called Jon and said, ‘Mr. Landau, book me anywhere, please.’ I then of course broke down in tears.” Springsteen, incredibly, needs the “magic trick” of a Springsteen show as much as his fans.

By the end of Born to Run, Springsteen seems to be in a better place, in part because he’s made peace with his own humanity. In the process, he ponders the unthinkable: A world without Bruce Springsteen. Favoring a River-like metaphor, Springsteen writes of an old tree near his boyhood home that was recently felled. At first, the tree’s absence fills him with dread. But then he looks to the sky and is reassured that what is gone lives on in those who are left behind.

“We remain in the air, the empty space, in the dusty roots and deep earth, in the echo and stories, the songs of the time and place we inhabited,” Springsteen writes. “My clan, my blood, my people.”

Steven Hyden is Uproxx’s Cultural Critic and the author of Your Favorite Band is Killing Me and an upcoming book on the rise and fall of classic rock. Say hello to him on Twitter.

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